Lives of the fellows

Brian Douglas Raymond Wilson

b.13 November 1915 d.30 April 1988
MRCS LRCP(1939) MB BS Lond(1939) MRCP(1946) DCH(1948) FRCP(1960)

Brian Wilson died without warning in his beloved Woking garden among the shrubs and roses he had tended for thirty years or more. From 1958 until he retired in 1979 he was physician in charge of the childrens’ department at St Thomas’s Hospital, London - an institution with which he was associated as man and boy for half a century. The department then included wards at the old Royal Waterloo and Lambeth Hospitals, in addition to which he had consultant sessions at St Andrew’s, Bow, and also the Mile End Hospital. With furled umbrella, his measured strides in one or other direction were a familiar sight, pausing only to say a few kind words to any passing ‘salt of the earth’ locals whose children he had looked after, or to peer through the view-holes of hoardings around building sites - a temptation he could never resist. He also visited the Cheyne Spastics Centre, a charity he supported staunchly and of which he became chairman.

His association with Woking was almost as long as that with St Thomas’s. It was perhaps more than a coincidence that having gone to a preparatory school in Woking he was to make it his home town, sending all three sons to his old school and then on to Sherborne, where he himself was educated. He believed in traditional values and preferred to build on solid ground and proven soil. He had the patience and perseverance to wait for results and was never one to change course lightly.

Brian entered St Thomas’s in 1933 as a student, to return after the war as paediatric registrar, then becoming chief assistant and finally, in 1950, physician. Eight years later he took charge of the department which, like the garden he cultivated with green fingers, took seed and bore fruit. His first task was to appoint Dennis Cottom [Munk's Roll, Vol.VI, p.122] as his junior. Between them the department was to enjoy its halcyon years, setting some 25-30 consultant paediatricians (and Fellows of the College) on their future careers. The wasteful early death of Dennis Cottom in a road accident in France was a bitter blow, coming as it did at a time when he himself needed arterial surgery for his legs, and followed not long after by the tragic death of his middle son at the early age of 19. Brian was not one to give up easily. With characteristic patience and fortitude, he rebuilt what he could and few outsiders ever guessed the truth.

He was an unerring judge of ability, with a rare instinct for picking winners, but never sought the limelight for himself. He had an eye for good prose and shrewd observation, yet only wrote three or four papers himself. Instead, he gained great satisfaction from the ever-growing number of important contributions by past and present members of his department. He had a talent for bringing out the best in others without the slightest pressure, appeal or reproach. If there was a secret in this it was the ability to inspire a natural filial devotion. With his neat white, clipped moustache and fruity voice, he looked the epitome of paternal benevolence, and his appearance never changed in thirty years. He evidently had the same effect on mothers and children, with whom he was an instant success.

As a paediatrician he was an excellent no-nonsense clinician who kept himself well-informed and achieved speedy results with the fewest investigations. He had the wisdom and foresight to be among the first to foster the development of neonatal intensive care, eclectic child psychiatry, refresher courses for general practitioners, and many other points which were to relieve the burdens of sick children. He instantly knew a good thing when he saw it, but eschewed passing ‘bandwagons’ and had scathing things to say about some paediatric fashions of the moment.

Brian married Evelyn Marsden, the daughter of a parson and a fellow medical student who willingly relinquished her studies to make a supremely happy home for Brian, their three boys, and some 10-20 animals of various shapes and sizes - from stick insects to a python. Almost as soon as he qualified, Brian was recruited into the RAMC and sent to India and Burma. It was there that he presumably acquired his endearing capacity for light-hearted derogatory remarks against the Far East which, after the death of Dennis Cottom in France, grew to encompass all nationals east of Calais, except for Gurkhas, punka wallahs, and anybody who could make a good curry.

His favourite hobbies were cricket, trout fishing and gardening. He staunchly supported the hospital cricket team and, at home, revelled in the sporting exploits of his boys. For his fishing, he flogged the Surrey waters, often for no better reason than to bring back a briefcase full of trout for everyone in the department. He enjoyed nothing better than to holiday in Scotland with his family, and his fishing rods and flies.

When Brian cut the Christmas pudding on the children’s ward at St Thomas’s for the last time he had, as always, surreptitiously contrived to put a sixpenny bit in every slice, making sure his successor knew how it was done. A traditionalist to the last, his legacy to paediatrics can be found in the many consultants and professors who grew out of his department.

JW Scopes
H Barcroft
Sir Gordon Wolstenholme

[Lancet, 1988,1,1237; The Times, 20 May 1988; Guardian, 13 May 1988]

(Volume VIII, page 542)

<< Back to List